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Friday, December 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Romance & Cigarettes," an intoxicating musical

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Romance & Cigarettes," with James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet, Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, Christopher Walken. Written and directed by John Turturro. 115 minutes. Rated R for sexual content including some strong dialogue, and language. Varsity.

After watching John Turturro's strange, intoxicating musical "Romance & Cigarettes," you'll be walking around for a few days humming the Engelbert Humperdinck hit "A Man Without Love," and smiling. ("Every day I wake up, then I start to break up / Lonely is a man without love" ... see, just try to get that tune out of your head.) The song is the movie's first opening number, and it's a joy. Nick (James Gandolfini), a working-class Queens husband who's cheating on his wife, Kitty (Susan Sarandon), steps onto the porch of his modest home and sings the first few lines of the song, without musical accompaniment. Abruptly, the soundtrack kicks in, and he's belting it out along with Engelbert, giving himself over to the song's over-the-top emotions. Passing garbagemen join in, as does a guy manning his barbecue. They dance, they leap, they croon: They are men without love, and they're lonely.

And if you love musicals, or love how a familiar song can bring people together, you'll be watching this with a grin that grows ever-wider. "Romance & Cigarettes," a labor of love for Turturro (it's finally getting a limited theatrical release after more than two years on the shelf), is a dark-red valentine to the way that pop music gets under our skin. Its characters express themselves, between conversations in their bleak lives, by bursting into song — it's as if they're carrying around a radio programmed to pour out the song that precisely fits their emotions at any moment. (The style is reminiscent of Herbert Ross and Dennis Potter's wonderful 1981 film "Pennies from Heaven," in which Depression-era characters escape their world through fantasy musical numbers.) Sarandon's vulnerable Kitty (whose voice, it must be said, is wonderfully redolent of both romance and cigarettes) does a tough-broad version of "Piece of My Heart" as if she's singing it directly to Nick. Christopher Walken, as Kitty's eccentric Cousin Bo, flings himself into "Delilah," with a backup gang of cops leaping about like a road company of "West Side Story."

Though there's much that's wickedly funny here, "Romance & Cigarettes" is not a happy tale; those cigarettes take their toll, and many of the characters remain without love. Turturro's vision is dark, and his musical scrappy and deliberately unpolished, an echo of life in a neighborhood that isn't very pretty. But that very quality creates a delicious looseness in the performances, with the actors seeming unusually relaxed and daring. Kate Winslet, as Nick's slinky paramour Tula, practically melts the screen: In a red dress, she writhes in a burning doorway (yes, it's really burning), crooning like an old-time torch singer.

But Turturro lets the film end on a note of gentle forgiveness, as a character whisper-sings "The Girl That I Marry" along with a tape recording. It's an old-fashioned ditty, from an old-fashioned musical, and here it brings together two people who aren't together anymore — just a tune and two little voices, creating a story in a dark room before it fades out, giving us a poignant reminder of the power of a song.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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